I’m always very leery when an album proves to be a “grower.” You’d think that I’d embrace the fact that not all things can be appreciated or understood based on flawed first impressions, but instead I become unbelievably self-conscious when I grow into a record. I worry that the shift in my opinion in opinion has nothing to do with the quality of the album itself but with me – my need to justify a purchase, my sense of loyalty towards certain artists, or my positive predisposition (well, maybe not that).
On this level, Matthew Good’s Hospital Music has left me swimming in insecurities. Although just released yesterday, I’ve been listening to the streaming feed on Good’s website since late June or so and my first reactions to it were hardly kind. My exact words – from an MSN conversation with my friend Kory thankfully saved for posterity – were that my opinion lied in “an area between dislike and hate.” Now, a month later and with the physical album in my hands, I’m writing a review that’s decidedly more positive than that. And I can’t help but worry that the $11.99 + tax I put on the counter to buy it or (more likely) my decade’s worth of history with Good’s work is to blame. So if only to appease my internal drama, I’m going to start with the negatives and probably dwell on them more than I should.
My biggest problem with Hospital Music is Good’s inability to accentuate acoustic material with anything remotely interesting. Good’s interest in clean, open acoustic guitar sounds dates back to his first solo work – three songs on the Loser Anthems EP – and can be traced through to the Rooms recordings on his 2005 Best-of disc. It’s pretty clear from listening to Hospital Music that much of it started out the same way – songs like “Metal Airplanes,” “A Single Explosion,” “She’s In It For the Money” – but these tracks pose a production dilemma. Should Good add creative instrumentation and threaten losing the song’s emotional core, or should he leave each one as they are and render them ‘out of place’ among the album’s more adventuresome fare?
Good chooses an unsatisfying middle road, adding unimaginative instrumentation that leaves the acoustic guitar as the song’s focus but also leaves this listener wanting more. It actually makes the tracks sound emptier, drawing my attention to the bare aesthetics being added instead of the quality of the song itself. After hearing them distractingly accentuated on the record, it’s clear that songs like “Metal Airplanes” or “She’s in It for the Money” will likely play far better on Good’s solo acoustic tour.*
Equally as frustrating is that, as has been the case with each of his solo albums, Good’s thrown a couple of dependably disposable upbeat rock tracks onto the record that do little more than take up space in the tracklisting. “The Devil’s In Your Details” feels like a token bone tossed to the segment of his fanbase who demands guitar riffs, and while “I’m A Window” manages slightly better thanks to a fantastic breakdown, the core song still adds little to the experience.
It’s the tracks that don’t fit into either of these categories that end up resonating when the album reaches the end of its hour-long running time. Some of Good’s best material in his solo years has been his lengthy and rewarding epics like “While We Were Hunting Rabbits,” “Avalanche,” and “Blue Skies over Bad Lands,” but never has he had the balls to open an album with one. “Champions of Nothing” goes from creepy to unsettling to angry to tragic throughout its 9+ minutes, setting the reflective, emotional tone that flows through the rest of the record. I’m not sure whether “99% of Us is Failure” is actually about death or merely using it as a metaphor, but the keyboard line at its core sells its sadness regardless. And “The Boy Come Home” is bloody fantastic; I’m uncertain whether it’s because it’s one of the few tracks where Matt lets someone else play bass, but the song moves better than anything else on the album.
But ultimately, Hospital Music is an album best listened to with lyrics sheet in hand, for its words are by far the best that Good has ever written. He’s mostly eschewed the lazy “second verse / same as the first” writing formula that he’s been using as a lyrical crutch for years. The best lyrics, like the tragically harsh “Born Losers” or the fly-on-the-wall “The Boy Come Home,” ebb and flow as the songs move along. Their passion is rarely damaged by toss-off lines in the interest of formula or rhyme, and Good’s delivery is wonderfully understated to match the tone.
That said, it’s the subject matter that will inspire most of the conversation around Hospital Music. Good’s hidden very little about his personal struggles over the past few years, from overdosing on prescription medication to being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder to a relationship breakdown and divorce that seems to inform almost every lyric on the album. He’s made it difficult to view Hospital Music as anything but an auditory account of these struggles. The threat in being so lyrically confessional – and then telling everyone about it on your blog or in interviews – is that you limit the audience’s ability to interpret your art as they see fit; it’s hard to place one’s self within the song with the songwriter still stuck inside.
But that transparency turns the album into something very different, a narrative facilitatating a sort of collective catharsis. What makes Hospital Music work, beyond all else, is that Good is a sympathetic and self-critical narrator, guiding the listener through his personal journey with his own critical eye. Yes, we explore his frustration and anger, but the whole debacle is presented as tragedy, not self-indulgent melodrama. It’s confessional but never crass, honest but not hard to swallow. I may take issue with some of the album’s musical direction, but there’s no question that Hospital Music is not just another record in the Matthew Good assembly line; it’s his truest exploration of the fine art of falling apart.
* Matthew Good’s solo acoustic tour is coming to Halifax on October 11 at the Marquee Club. Tickets go on sale this Thursday through all Ticketpro locations and their website.